If PAX Prime 2012 had a yearbook, under "Most Popular" would read this week's XBLA release Mark of the Ninja. It's rare that I'm interested in a game so well liked that I have to throw elbows just to check out a demo, but there I was last weekend, shamelessly flashing press credentials like they were a goddamn police badge in my attempt to test drive this compelling, crowd-drawing title.
I'm glad I did. Quite literally, this is the most ninja game ever made.
Mark of the Ninja (Xbox Live Arcade)
Mark of the Ninja is a 2D cel-shaded platformer wherein players sneak, hide, and distract their way through multiple levels of guards and enemies, earning points based on stealthiness to rack up high scores. The game features a number of enchanting ninja-themed mechanisms, from hiding in doorways and climbing through elaborate vent systems, to dangling from grappling hooks and using bamboo darts to confuse guards. Points are awarded based the player's ability to avoid detection and confrontation, as well as to successfully find artifacts and scrolls that key into the mysterious source of the protagonist's powers.
Mark of the Ninja is one of those few games that triumphs in virtually every area. The controls are instinctual and easy to pick up, and selecting items is done completely through controller buttons, eliminating disruptive trips to the menu and adding a fluidity that contributes to the foreboding stillness of the game's atmosphere. The first level adequately familiarizes the player with the various tools and stealth techniques, while secondary objectives (called "seals") reinforce their constant use. Color cues are used frequently, guiding the player to climbable walls or demonstrating their visibility to guards, which have a detection range illustrated by orbs indicating their line of sight.
Earning points serves a dual purpose of both encouraging multiple run-throughs and allowing the player to buy upgrades, such as Distraction items, attack items, and new techniques. For instance, early in the game you cannot execute a cinematic kill from behind a plant or while emerging from a vent, but both those abilities can be bought at a later time. Distraction items like firecrackers and smoke bombs stun and confuse guards, while attack items aid in the discouraged but occasional head-to-head confrontation.
The artwork certainly lives up to the legacy and hype, appropriately thematic and delivered with impeccable flair. The creative kill animations and cutscenes deliver the Klei style we're familiar with while also blending into a dark and gritty kung fu comic aesthetic. But perhaps what stands out the most are the little flourishes: terrorizing guards by breaking street lights or shooting strategically placed noisemakers, hiding bodies to avoid detection, avoiding dogs that can sniff out threats even in the dark. Klei really went the extra mile in every facet of the game.
Even my few complaints are extremely minor. Sometimes the checkpoints (which are otherwise reasonable) set you back a fair bit, and I didn't find the story all that compelling. Ultimately neither mattered much in light of the satisfaction I got from the gameplay.
I find Mark of the Ninja to be perfect. Let it stand as the benchmark by which all stealth games are now measured.
THE VERDICT - Mark of the Ninja
Reviewed by Holly Green